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Women looking for Oscar love in best picture cliffhanger

By Jill Serjeant

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Women are hoping for some long overdue love at the Academy Awards on Sunday, where the biggest prize in the movie industry is wide open after an awards season dominated by Hollywood's sexual misconduct scandal.

Romantic fantasy "The Shape of Water," Fox Searchlight's <FOXA.O> tale of a mute cleaning woman who falls in love with a river creature, goes into Sunday's ceremony with a leading 13 nominations, including best picture, director and actress.

But awards pundits say the coveted best picture Oscar is a four-way race with Fox Searchlight dark comedy "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," Universal Pictures <CMCSA.O> racial satire "Get Out," and Warner Bros. <TWX.N> British World War Two drama "Dunkirk" also in the running.

"The star of this year's Oscars is female empowerment. A film with a female perspective has not won best picture since 'Million Dollar Baby' in 2005," said Tom O'Neil, founder of awards website GoldDerby.com.

"This year, four of the nine nominated movies have a female perspective. That's remarkable," he said.

With accusations of sexual impropriety against filmmakers, actors and directors emerging every week since October 2017, the Time's Up women's resistance movement has been as hot a topic in Hollywood as the suspense over who will take home the industry's highest honors.

The sexual misconduct scandal follows years of efforts by women to close the gender pay gap in Hollywood and get the behind the camera jobs that determine what films are produced.

Greta Gerwig, director of best picture contender "Lady Bird" about a volatile mother-daughter relationship, is vying to become only the second woman to win best director in the 90-year history of the Oscars.

"Three Billboards," starring best actress front runner Frances McDormand, is seen as channeling the rage of the #MeToo movement and already has won Golden Globe, BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild awards.

"It's the story of a woman raging against male injustice for refusing to find the killer and the rapist of her daughter. This is the theme of what's happening throughout Hollywood," said O'Neil.

Dave Karger, special correspondent for entertainment website IMDB.com, said that while "Shape of Water" has the most overall appeal to Academy of Motion Picture voters, Jordan Peele's bold "Get Out," a look at modern race relations through the prism of a horror movie, "is emerging as the underdog of choice."

Peele, making his directorial debut, would be the first black man to win a best director Oscar.

"Last year, the movie with far and away more nominations than any other ended up losing best picture to a movie that spoke more to the times," Karger said, recalling the 2017 win of black drama "Moonlight" over presumed front runner "La La Land."

British betting firm Ladbrokes says the odds are tightest between "Shape of Water" and "Three Billboards."

"It's really interesting that we have still got a fight and a race on our hands and it's not a foregone conclusion," said Ladbrokes spokeswoman Jessica Bridge.

No such suspense surrounds the main acting races, where McDormand is heavily favored to win for "Three Billboards" and British actor Gary Oldman's role as wartime leader Winston Churchill is expected to bring his first Oscar.

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Sandra Maler)